Why does language matter? What is the difference between describing someone as ‘Is Bipolar’ or ‘Has Bipolar’?
Firstly, language is a powerful tool of expression. We tell stories with language and these stories conjure up images and ideas in the listener. We can impact the way people think or perceive the world around them with the language we use. Language can change people’s opinions of others and more importantly when it comes to mental health, themselves.
When we say someone ‘is’ their mental health diagnosis people immediately jump to their preconceived notion of the illness. They see what their experience of it is; what they have heard and seen in the media. It causes us to stereotype without really realising that’s what we’re doing. When someone says to me I ‘am’ bipolar it makes me feel that this diagnosis defines me. That my personality and the essence of what makes me who I am has been dwindled down to a mental illness. All that I am is bipolar, and this is all anyone ever sees. It impacts my self esteem in a significant way. It is limiting and dehumanising. It takes away our individuality to be spoken about in this way. Although I believe labels are important and a tool to receive treatment and provides answers to behaviours, being seen as just a label can be damaging.
When you say that someone ‘has’ a mental illness it has a completely different impact. I feel like I can be seen as a person and individual. It shows to me that the person understands mental illness and how it affects me. They understand that I might be struggling and need support.
There is still a huge discrepency between how we use language for physical and mental illness. Whereas physical illness sufferers are seen as fighters, those with mental illnesses are seen as weak. If you have a physical illness such as the flu (I’m not talking about chronic illness here, which is often stigmatised just as much as mental illness) you’re often seen as blameless, it’s ‘just one of those things.’ With mental illness you’re seen as a failure and ‘you could be doing more to help yourself.’ Mental illnesses are biological, we have a genetic susceptibility and they are often coupled with environmental factors. It isn’t a weakness or failure on our part, but the misuse of language continues to contribute to the stigma.
It’s important that we use language delicately and with care when discussing mental illness. Think about how much impact your words have and how they can shape a person’s self worth.
6 thoughts on “When Speaking About Mental Health, Language Matters”
I know that there are some people who self-identify as “being” bipolar, etc, but I think it’s really inappropriate for anyone to define another person’s identity that way.
I agree, if someone wants to identify as being bipolar, that is totally their decision, but we shouldn’t assume everyone with it wants to be referred to as such.
Great thought provoking post 💜 I usually say I live with BPD….though sometimes I’ll flippantly say I’m a borderliner because it’s a term often used, and people understand that more than saying you have BPD. I think word choice is important. I hate the phrase ‘commit suicide’ Commit is unnecessary and adds a layer of shame to those who feel so desperate that they take their own life. X
Thank you! The phrase commit suicide is awful. Suicide isn’t illegal anymore so it’s a really outdated term and shouldn’t be used.
Completely agree with this. Especially because it can be so difficult for people to separate themselves from the illness anyway. I think it’s always polite to take notice of how people describe themselves and follow their lead with language.
Thank you. I agree. With anything, we should listen to how a person identifies and use language they are comfortable with.